Editorial: Historic churches worthy of tax money to repair, maintain

  • 2nd Congregational Church of Greenfield. RECORDER STAFF/PAUL FRANZ

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Some of the oldest examples of New England architecture are found in 18th- and 19th-century churches that stand front and center on picturesque commons in Franklin and Hampshire county towns.

Townspeople are proud of the dignity and history of these iconic buildings. Yet, the dwindling congregations attached to them are often unable to pay for large structural repairs and restorations. To remedy this, communities increasingly turn to the Community Preservation Act, voting to use local tax dollars to keep historic churches intact, as the public assets they are.

This remedy is threatened by a case now before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, “George Caplan, et al. v. Town of Acton.” Invoking separation of church and state principals, the plaintiffs challenge the town’s use of CPA grants “to refurbish stained glass windows with religious imagery, and to make other repairs that would improve the condition of the Church for its congregants.”

The Community Preservation Act was signed into law in 2000 as a smart-growth tool to help communities preserve open space and historic sites, creates affordable housing and develop outdoor recreational facilities. The act has to be adopted by voters in each town, agreeing to levy an additional property tax of up to 3 percent for such projects. The money has been matched, in varying percentages over the years, by the commonwealth.

A local CPA committee, which accepts and vets applications for funding, recommends funding to voters at town meetings, who have the final say.

As of November 2016, the Franklin and Hampshire county towns of Northfield, Conway, Deerfield, Whately, Leverett, Shutesbury, Hatfield, Sunderland, Amherst, Hadley, Northampton, Pelham, Belchertown, Southampton and Easthampton have adopted the CPA.

Since its inception, the Act has been used to shore up historic religious structures. Here are a few such projects in our area:

In Northfield, CPA money helped repair the foundation and preserve stained glass windows in First Parish Church, built in 1879.

In Northampton, century-old Tiffany windows at First Churches are being restored with CPA funds.

In Amherst, voters awarded the Jewish Community of Amherst money to fix the steeple, damaged by a lightning strike.

The projects benefit the communities as a whole and must be approved by each town’s governing body, which we feel provides adequate assurances about state-church separation.

These public funds come with restrictions that safeguard their use for taxpayer approved projects: In Conway, for example, the United Congregational Church, which dates back to 1885, was awarded $100,000 three years ago to remediate mold. When the church was structurally damaged by a tornado in February, the church repaid the taxpayers’ $100,000 investment because it cannot save the church’s bell tower and thus will be destroying the historic character of the church the grant was intended to preserve.

Across the commonwealth, more than 300 projects involving religious institutions have been funded through this preservation program. Without its backing, small towns in particular are in danger of losing key structures in their streetscapes.

The court is expected to rule within months on the town of Acton’s decision to award state and local funds to the historic church.

Our message to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is: Towns, not just the congregations of the churches in question, benefit when churches get CPA money, and they should continue to be eligible.